Hello Uncle Foreigner

Mar 2, 2014

The Chongqing stopover

Oh, let’s just stay

Ciqikou, teeming with tourists
An acoustic performer at 16th Bystreet Music BarHere's Sheldon!
Need some “Big Bang Theory”-inspired art? You can find it in Ciqikou.
We eat hot pot in Ciqikou.
The return to Sichuan spice at our favorite Chongqing hot pot.

Chongqing has been our transfer point often enough that we’ve developed a cozy routine: Check in at the Perfect Time Hostel, snack and mingle with the tourists in Ciqikou Ancient Town, eat hot pot at the place, and take in a drink at the 16th Bystreet Music Bar. Maybe hit up Carrefour for some imported goodies. Then, catch the bus home to Luzhou.

Once we settled in this time, however, we just wanted to stay. The weather was nice, Ciqikou was humming with activity — we saw some shops go up literally overnight. And we didn’t have anywhere to be for at least a month.

Adding on some extra days meant we had some time to go exploring around the city; we went book shopping, Sichuan-food eating, and neighborhood wandering. “It feels like we’re back in China,” we said to each other as we meandered down a small alleyway filled with hair salons, mahjong parlors and kids playing outside. Sanya is on the mainland, too, but it felt like another world.

The main event was a Saturday night surprise, to us, concert at the Music Bar. The band drew a small crowd, made up of a small group of their friends, us and some other extras, but they were amazing! Their music mixed Chinese traditions and western rock influences — Dylan, Hendrix, Costello — in the best way. It had a dark and moody vibe that held together through it all, and the frontman had a simmering intensity that captivated the small audience. It may have been a mostly friends event, but they performed like they wanted to rock the world. I just wish I remembered their name.

Feb 22, 2014

A beach vacation for non-beach people

Do we join Fish Club?

Real China and resort China intermingle in Sanya
Sanya is pretty touristy, but occasionally you get glimpses of the “real” China.
Outdoors at the Mandarin OrientalPeter and his dinner at the Mandarin Oriental
Outdoor dining at the Mandarin Oriental is a fabulous experience.
I get a late-night pizza at Surf CircusPeter at the bar at Surf Circus
The pizza at Surf Circus isn’t the greatest, but it is late-night satisfying.
Me with Sissi, the server at the Dolphin
My new friend Sissi, from the Dolphin
Out on the boardwalk, trying some fishThe real beer kegsThe house band at Baile Bar
Baile Bar, on the boardwalk, rocked nightly.
In the rose tub at the hot springsFish nibblers at the hot springs
The pools at Nantian Hot Springs are relaxing and fragrant. The pool on the right is filled with those fish that nibble on your dead skin!

Greater Sanya, as seen from a cab, is certainly still a part of the China we know and love, but the beachy areas exist solely on Planet Resort. We were there between the slight lull between the January 1 New Year and the start of Chinese New Year on January 30, so things were a bit sleepy, which is just the way we like it.

Beforehand, we had decided that the theme for the trip was: “Try the seafood, you might like it.” That lasted for a few days before we decided that we didn’t like it, and didn’t need to work so hard on our vacation. The one exception being the tasting menu during our fancy-pants night out at the Mandarin Oriental, where Peter described feeling like Little Lord Fauntleroy dining seaside on rock crab, turbot, red snapper and crème brûlée

Instead, we just relaxed. There are virtually no turkey sandwiches in China outside of this little strip of paradise, so we gave in to our western cravings and oscillated between burgers at the Dolphin Sports Bar & Grill and pizzas at beachfront bar Sanya Surf Circus. Sometimes — many times — we hit both places in the same night. By the end of the trip, I was on hugging terms with Dolphin waitress Sissi, whom we saw was beloved by most everybody in the place.

We watched a crop of new police recruits goof their way through a boardwalk inspection. (I’d totally watch a sitcom about beach cops.) We traded English and Chinese vocabulary with masseuses. We ate junky and satisfying beach food. We got way overcharged on coconuts, but bargained sharply for a cheap pair of flip flops.

We met Teana, the MO bartender, who spent a lovely evening talking with us and fixing up extravagant cocktails. She’s Sichuanese, and right away we bonded over love of hot pot. Her English was so good that I thought for sure she had studied abroad. Nope, she picked it up solely through hotel work. “I was nervous the first time I spoke with a foreigner,” she told us. But she made herself do it, over and over, and now she’s quite fluent.

We visited the Nantian Hot Springs, and spent a day hopping in and out of scalding pools of various flavors, steeping like tea and absorbing the supposed health benefits. Emboldened by Teana’s spirit, I powered through some challenging chats that I might have brushed off with an embarrassed, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

Our 10 days lazed by gloriously, though it still felt like it was over in a snap. But that was OK. We were refreshed and restored by the sunshine in January. And ready to get back home.

More hot springsMore hot springsMore hot springsA regular swimming pool at the hot springs

Feb 1, 2014

Two weeks on the island in Sanya, Hainan

It’s cold! Go south!

Map: Where is Sanya?
The beach at Dadonghai Bay
Let’s go swimming in January!
Peter's all wrapped up for cocktails at the Mandarin OrientalOur room at the Blue Sky Hostel
Left: Peter, bundled up for cocktails at the Mandarin Oriental; right: Our room, with its glorious yoga nook
More beach

Our winter break started January 3, and we celebrated by heading to the beach resort of Sanya on the island province of Hainan. Known locally as “China’s Hawaii” Hainan is just southwest of Hong Kong, and neighbors with Vietnam. The January weather was pleasantly warm during the day — people, not us, went swimming at the beach — but cool enough at night that, say, the outdoor bar at the Mandarin Oriental was serving up blankets with its Winter Warmers cocktail menu.

We stayed in the area known as Dadonghai Bay, which is super touristy and caters pretty heavily to a Russian crowd. In fact, it took me a few exchanges with touts and salespeople to realize that it’s not that they speak a dialect of Chinese that I’m not familiar with, but that they were talking to us in Russian. “我们是美国人。 说汉语,” was an absurd thing I found myself saying. “We are Americans. Speak Chinese.”

Our hostel was the Blue Sky International, and our room offered a fantastic view of the beach, which was about a five minute walk away. The room also had a lovely yoga alcove by the windows; down-dog and sea breezes. And we were just around the corner from Corner’s Deli, the best western grocery store we’ve found in all of China. They had an actual deli counter with imported turkey from the U.S. Peter started eating meat just in time.

Within two days of arrival, we were researching job opportunities in this island paradise. Within four, we were toasting the sunshine but reaffirming our original Yunnan plans. Kunming, there’s no one else but you in our hearts — although if winter there continues to be as cold as we hear, we know a great place to escape to.

I have a g&t at the beach bar

Jan 28, 2014

Take good care of yourself

Have a fish, why don’t you?

Our reflexology guy
Peter tries some meatPeter tries more meat!Peter loves eating meat!
The road to meat acceptance

Peter is “pre-sick,” according to our reflexologist. “If you went to a hospital, they’d say you were fine, but I can tell you’re very unhealthy,” he told us through a translator.

Now, reflexology is bunk, but massages are lovely, so we go back. The beauty of working essentially part time is that there’s plenty of time to pamper yourself. And our reflexology guy runs a nice place; massage is a social event in China, so neighborhood kids are always about, and pop-in friends and other customers are always up for a chat. It’s actually a great chance for me to practice my Chinese while our aches and pains are soothed.

Chinese medicine is all around in China. But most people take it as seriously as Americans do their folk beliefs such as “no swimming an hour after eating,” or “cold weather + wet hair = instant cold.” Our Chinese friends are quick to recommend drinking hot water as a curative for about everything, and cite the restorative benefits of certain foods, but they’ll also take ibuprofen for a headache and antibiotics for a bacterial infection. We’re not practicing witchcraft, over here.

“Do you eat fish?” our reflexologist asked Peter during one visit. “You should.” This actually seemed pretty reasonable to Peter, who had recently been connecting the dots between his feeling terrible all the time and his vegetarianism. So that night, he welcomed animal proteins back into his life with some nibbles of chicken. And he’s feeling a lot better. (Nutritional science! Now that’s a thing.)

Our reflexologist hasn’t said anything, but he’s stopped squeezing Peter’s big toe and saying “Your stomach is bad.” Healthy meat, healthy feet, I guess.

Jan 4, 2014

Rocking the school talent show

Sure, we’ve got the time ...

We played for the whole school
Our little trioLinda on the drums

Linda asked us if we could play at this year’s school talent show, so we asked her if she could find a student who could drum for us. “I’m learning to play the drums. I can do it!” she said. And a trio was born.

Teachers generally don’t perform at these things, but we’re the Meiguos, and people love to have us be a part of things. (I once gave an impromtu speech, in English, to a room full of Chinese speakers because I wandered into the wrong room on Parents’ Day.) We chose Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time” because it’s short, peppy, and has a swingin’ bass line. Linda met with us a couple of times to practice, and urged us to trim the 3:30 song. She explained our role thusly: “We’ll come out and it will be a big surprise. And then the surprise will be over!”

On the day of the show, we lived up to expectations. Peter, Linda and I took the stage to a huge roar of applause; we cranked out our song and the crowd clapped the beat along; and then we were done before anyone realized that I had forgotten all of the words and basically sang nonsense syllables for about a minute and a half. It was fantastic.

There’s probably video extant somewhere; half the audience had their cellphones raised in salute. But … I think a still photo makes us sound a lot cooler.

Getting ready to go onstage

Dec 31, 2013

Oh, yeah. It’s New Year’s Eve!

But there’s always room for Meiguos

New Year's Eve dinner at Snaggles'

It’s been a little hard to keep track of time now that we’re down to working two days a week (with Friday being our last classes until February!), and so both of us forgot that today was December 31 until we inadvertently crashed some giant banquet dinner at one of our restaurants. The staff, however, found room for us in a corner and served us as usual.

Happy New Year!

Dec 31, 2013

Three times Christmas in Luzhou

We learn that we know nothing and stuff blows up

Our festive apartment
Some little toys from the kidsA cross-stitch from the teachers I taughtA print from a studentTraditional Chinese parasolsThe bare-bones before shot of our apartment
Most of the decor in our apartment is gifts from students. Below, the apartment in a barer state.

Formerly, I thought Christmas for the Chinese was just about shopping and sales, but our friend Chris just told us that it’s also tradition for people to give apples to each other, because the words for apples and for Christmas Eve (which is translated as “Peaceful Night”) sound alike. So you give apples to your friends and family to wish them peace. Chris said that the practice is so common that apple sellers jack their prices in the few days before Christmas. Peace can be pricey.

There were no apples for us this year, but one early December afternoon our friend Tina tracked us down in the hallways between classes to give us her gift, a beautiful hand-painted umbrella. “It’s very small,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of money.” We told her that we loved it, because that’s the truth, and we gave her a big hug.

This year, the one thing Peter and I really wanted for Christmas was the Dragon Boat of Meat from our favorite beef hot pot restaurant across town. Instead, we spent Christmas Eve having (a perfectly nice) dinner with our bosses, and Christmas night waiting in the rain and not getting picked up by cabs. But on Boxing Day, we made it.

The Dragon Boat of Meat

The Dragon Boat of Meat is spectacular. It is also a carpaccio — a fact that had to be repeated and mimed several times by our bemused servers before we understood that we were supposed to eat it raw. We basically know nothing about anything. Peter actually kept cooking it on the sly even after we were positive that it was supposed to be eaten as is, because he wasn’t crazy about the uncooked texture.

Boxing Day was also when the mall in the center of the city blew up, though we didn’t learn about that until the following day, when we tried to go shopping there. We needed a new laptop bag. Actually, we had a weird lunch first, at a tofu soup place we like. They refused to bring us beans or turn on the table-top burners, but they didn’t want us to leave either. It was only slightly more confusing than usual.

After lunch, we walked out to the main road and saw the fire trucks and soldiers. Little boys in big coats, actually, guarding the smoking wreckage. The road was cordoned off to vehicular traffic and hundreds of gawkers crowded the sidewalks. “Well, we’re not going shopping.”

Local rumor, we found out later from Chris, is that one of the restaurants was doing something dodgy with their cooking equipment. Whatever it was, it caused an entire city block to blow up. Many people were hurt and four people died. Reportedly, people in the movie theater thought that the explosion was some kind of 3D effect. This is my worst fear, justified.

Life goes on, though, and four days later traffic is mostly back to normal, and the spectators are down to a minimum. Tofu soup still doesn’t have any gas, and the local McDonald’s remains shuttered; I suspect the underground damage to the gas lines is pretty extensive. But we bought a computer bag elsewhere, which I’m sure is what you were worried about most.

The movie theater blew up!

Dec 25, 2013

The people in our neighborhoods

Making friends of all ages

Blue's birthday party
The birthday boy

So, it’s perfectly OK to bring beer to a 7-year-old’s birthday party, but you should know that the birthday boy himself will want to toast with wine.

Our new friend Snow had invited us ‘round for a dinner party, which turned out to be a celebration for her young neighbor Blue. He was in good spirits, even though he had a big exam the next day. Also in attendance were a few other kids from the building, as well as some of Snow’s adult friends: The young woman from the Luzhou Planning Museum, a doctor who works in a traditional Chinese medicine clinic, and a woman who designs construction sites.

A few of the kids are siblings. Snow says this is tolerated because their parents run their own business. Out in this part of the country, if you violate the one-child stricture, you can just pay a fine and get on with your life; although government workers would probably be fired.

Peter, Snow, and I hung out with the kids while the ladies prepared dinner — as she does not consider herself a chef, Snow’s favorite trick is to invite fantastic cooks to dine on meals of their own preparation. Terrific smells wafted in from the kitchen as Snow coached Blue and his friends to introduce themselves in English. They were pretty good.

Once dinner was served, we all gathered around the table. Snow poured a small measure of wine for each kid, and we toasted Blue’s seventh year. Then we toasted Halloween. And then we toasted Blue’s impending exam. The children gobbled and then split to go play in the next room.

The adults lingered at the table for hours, sharing stories with the help of Snow’s translation. (Though the other women had some English; the doctor, in particular, appeared to understand a lot more than she could speak.)

The partiers say goodbye
Our parting shot, before all the kids went home to crash in bed.

We collectively decided … In south China, men and women share cooking and household duties; In the north it all falls to the ladies. Does geography influence character? A friend of Snow’s had studied in Lincoln, Nebraska, and found the weather and the people cold. Americans eat don’t know the joys of seasonal produce. The Chinese don’t like to travel. Americans should love 串串, and, hey … business idea!

Around midnight, the kids were still throwing themselves around the place with a manic tiredness, but their mothers had arrived to take them home. We took some group photos and wished Blue well one last time.

Maybell and her students
Maybell, the blur on the right, puts together a fine dumpling party.
Let's play a game in English
She also knows how to host an exciting card game.
Peter tunes the guitar to perform
Peter prepares for his performance.

Dumplings are delicious, but work intensive to make, so it’s a common Chinese social event to hold a dumpling party where everyone pitches in. Maybell hosted us to such a party with a few of her top students. Again, we brought beer, and again we were surprised that our fellow guests were so young: 12 years of age. But Maybell’s boyfriend — who now goes by the English name Cloud — was happy to partake with us.

We stuffed and folded our dumplings with Jenny, Snowy, Iris, Lucy, and Bill, who was quite dapper in a camel-colored blazer. Bill was quite comfortable among all the girls; Maybell told us, as a matter of fact, that because of the company he keeps she initially thought that Bill was a girl.

Many hands make light work, and before we knew it, we had a huge pile of dumplings. Maybell and Cloud took them into the kitchen to steam them up. They shuttled back and forth bringing out more and more food, and it was clear that they both had worked hard to prepare a delicious feast. The kids egged each other on to speak to Peter and me in English.

After dinner, we all retired to the living room for songs and games. We played some party card games that had been meticulously prepared by Maybell. During game time, the kids got a lot less shy about speaking to us foreigners, although they occasionally needed some translation help from Maybell and Cloud.

It was actually quite impressive that these 12-year-olds could hang for an entire evening of immersion English. They are some of Maybell’s best students, and it was obvious, interacting with them that they are very eager to learn. Peter and I were also impressed with Cloud, who now seems very confident in his English, as opposed to when we first met him and he was hesitant to say anything at all.

Tai-an alley 1

Sometimes a little change in routine can make a big difference. We’ve been spending a lot of time in the countryside neighborhood of Tai An since the summer, but just recently we added lunchtime to our rotation. We tromped the village like idiots one afternoon, looking for dumplings at tea houses. (“We serve tea here.”) A witness to our bumbling took pity on us and directed us to the restaurant that he was eating at. “It’s cheap,” was roughly his sales pitch, “6 kuai a person.” (This is about US$1.)

We settled into lunch. And then the neighborhood kids started gathering. They hovered at the threshold of the restaurant at first, and then one brave girl approached and asked us for our names. She produced a small piece of paper for me to write them down. And then the avalanche came.

Kids crowded the table with small pieces of paper, and then ripped up pieces of cigarette cartons to get a signature. Peter drew a self portrait for one child, and then everyone wanted one of those, too. All told, there were probably around 40 kids coming and going in the mob around us. Impressively, they were all very patient, and they politely waited their turn.

The initial brave girl stayed on hand, keeping an eye on things and monitoring the kids’ interactions with us. “They’re Americans. They’re from Tianfu Middle School,” she’d explain when another person would ask. As things were winding down, she told me in English, “Your eyes are like stars!”

Signing autographs for the kids of Tai'an

Dec 18, 2013

Baby, it’s cold inside

And there just aren’t enough layers in the world

The cold city streets of Luzhou

“It’s going to rain this weekend, and then the temperature will fall,” our boss Linda predicted last week. And she was absolutely right. It was 49 degrees this morning, and we are dying.

Now I know that all of America is drowning in monstrous amounts of climate-change snow. Complaining about a dip below 50 degrees may seem small potatoes. But in China, the cold is defended against only with more and more clothing. Maybe an electric hand warmer, if you’re lucky. (I take two to bed with me these days.) Fuel is expensive and heating systems are poorly designed and inefficient. Effectively, you are outside all the time. And it’s the WORST.

But, mercifully, some of our classes turned on their heaters today! This is the first time in 3 years that either of us has seen that happen. I could even remove my hat and gloves, it was so warm. I kept my coat on, though. It’s not that warm.

Dec 14, 2013

Snaps: The box it came in is always more fun

The bustle of Tai An

This kid found a lovely new hat.

We’ve been spending a lot of time in the countryside neighborhood of Tai An. Our favorite spot is a place we’ve dubbed Egg Bar (which was formerly Old Man Bar) because the proprietress sells eggs as well as beer. We like it there primarily for the dumplings, but also for its perfect view of the busy little alleyway.